By Aaron Kliegman
On Thursday, the Senate passed a resolution that would require President Trump to terminate the use of military force against Iran without explicit congressional authorization. The vote, 55 to 45, was bipartisan, with eight Republicans joining every Democratic senator in supporting the measure.
Many of the lawmakers who backed the resolution described it as a way to prevent war with Iran.
“The last thing this country should do is rush into or blunder into another war in the Middle East,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D., Va.), the resolution’s lead sponsor. “An offensive war requires a congressional debate and vote.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) added that the measure “sends a shot across [Trump’s] bow that the majority of the Senate and the majority of the House do not want the president waging war without congressional approval.”
Republicans who supported the resolution, such as Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah), argued that Congress needs to reassert its authority to declare war, rein in the war-making powers of the presidency, and prevent the U.S. from finding itself in a bloody conflict.
These arguments are misleading. Using military force is not a binary choice between waging full-scale war or doing nothing. There is a wide space between war and peace in which the U.S., and most other countries, operate.
When did “using military force” automatically become all-out war? Equating the two in absolute terms, without any appreciation for complexity, shows either dishonesty or a lack of understanding of Iran and of what the American military can do.
Limited military strikes, or perhaps cyber-attacks, against Iranian assets in retaliation for Iran harassing international shipping or attacking American equipment or personnel are not the same as war.
Look at Trump’s decision last month to kill Iran’s most powerful general, Qassem Solemani, after Iranian proxies killed an American contractor, wounded several other Americans, and stormed the American embassy in Baghdad. A few days later, Iran launched retaliatory strikes on military bases in Iraq that killed no one, and then tensions cooled. There was no American-Iranian war.
In fact, the reason why the situation escalated as far as it did was because the U.S. failed to respond to several Iranian provocations throughout last year — such as shooting down an American drone and attacking Saudi oil facilities. Tehran kept pushing because the U.S. did not take military action earlier to deter the Iranians from escalating. With Kaine’s resolution in effect, the White House, the Pentagon, and even the State Department would be too shackled to respond as needed in a timely and effective manner. Low-level military action today will prevent war tomorrow, but the reverse is also true: not acting today, whether out of choice or because Congress makes doing so impossible, will lead to escalation tomorrow.
Proving the point, Israel has, in the past few years, carried out hundreds of attacks against Iranian targets in Syria, killing many soldiers—including high-ranking officers—and causing significant damage to equipment and facilities. Yet somehow Iran and Israel are not formally at war, and Iran has barely responded to Israel’s strikes.
It is possible to use military force, even against Iran, without triggering a disastrous war. Study the history of the Islamic Republic, which, since its inception in 1979, has avoided direct confrontation and adopted generally cautious foreign and defense policies. Iran operates militarily to avoid direct conflict, probing to see what it can get away with and often working through proxies, outside of its borders. Iran has proven that it would back down from a direct fight with the United States. Indeed, Iran’s leaders are smart and weigh costs and benefits; they know they would lose a war and value staying in power above all else.
So, Iran operates in a “gray zone” between war and peace, in order to cause confusion and uncertainty among American decision-makers about how to respond. The Senate’s resolution would give Iran what it wants: more confusion and more uncertainty.
At times, the U.S. needs to use force to reinforce — or reestablish — credible deterrence with Iran. If anything, Congress should pass a resolution authorizing the president to strike Iran. Such a move would send a powerful signal to the regime, which pounces on American weakness but yields in the face of strength and direct confrontation.
The U.S. can form a strategy to counter Iranian aggression by also operating in the gray zone, using hard power discreetly and other covert means to deter Iran and prevent unwanted escalation. Of course, this, too, along with more overt military action, would be a nightmare to implement if Kaine’s resolution ever became law.
Of course, the resolution will not become law, as Trump has promised to veto it and the measure lacks a veto-proof majority. Just passing it however, sends the wrong message. And, more importantly, it is troubling to see a majority of senators have a misguided view of how to prevent war with Iran.
Aaron Kliegman is a freelance writer based in Virginia. Previously, he was a staff writer and news editor at the Washington Free Beacon, where he wrote analysis and commentary on foreign policy and national security. Aaron’s work has been published in a range of publications, and he has a master’s degree in international relations. Aaron is now writing regular columns for the Inner Circle as a contributor, and I am excited to have him on the Gingrich 360 team. — Newt
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